Cyma Curve

see also entry, Cabriolet Leg

cyma: Cyma comes from the Greek word meaning wave. A molding in common use, with a simple waved line concave at one end and convex at the other end, similar in form to an italic I. When the concave part is uppermost the molding is called cyma recta, but if the convexity appears above and the concavity below the molding is known as cyma reversa.

(Another term for cyma curve is "S-curve" Some cyma curves were small, like those at the top of many cabriole legs; others were large, like that of the leg itself. See for example, chapter one of Norman Vandal's book on Queen Anne, in sources

In 1906, a Princeton professor, Allan Marquand exhaustively traced the history of both these terms in the English language:

"... [F]rom current European terminlogy ... the words cyma recta and cyma reversa represent a usage practically confined to Britain and the English speaking people. How then id these terms come to be adopted in Britain? ... [I]t came this way. In 1715 an Italian name Giacomo Leoni was brought over to Britain by Lord Burlington to assist in the translation of the architectural works of Palladio, published in that year. This English edition of Palladio, subsequently republished with annotations of Inigo Jones, had no little influence on Englsih architects and architectural terminlogy")

Sources: Allan Marquand, "On the Terms Cyma Recta and Cyma Reversa", American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 10, No. 3 July-September 1906, page 287; Joseph Aronson, The Encyclopedia of Furniture, New York: Crown, 1938; Walt Durbahn, Fundamentals of Carpentry Chicago: American Technical Society, 1947, volume 1, page 26; Norman Vandal, Queen Anne Furniture: History, Design and Construction Newtown, CT: Taunton Press, 1990, chapter 1

The box below contains some examples -- with a "quick-and-dirty adaptation to the Internet -- of longterm usage of "cyma" in the Oxford Engish Dictionary:

1. Architecture. A moulding of the cornice, the outline of which consists of a concave and a convex line; an ogee.

Cyma recta: a moulding concave in its upper part, and convex in its lower part. cyma reversa (rarely inversa): a moulding convex in its upper part, and concave in its lower part.

1563 John Shute, The First and Chief Groundes of Architecture, First Printed in 1563 "4 partes geue also to Sima reuersa".

1563 John Shute, The First and Chief Groundes of Architecture, First Printed in 1563, "That second parte which remayneth of the Modulus ye shall geue vnto Syma".

1703 Joseph Moxon Mechanick Excercises "Scima reversa ... Scima recta, or Ogee".

1726 Giacoma Leoni, Alberti's Archit. II. 34b, "A Cima inversa of the breadth of two minutes".

1761 British Magazine II. 642 The true cima, or cimaise.

1850 C O Muller Ancient Art and its Remains, translated by J. Leitch 1847 §249. 258 "A base of several plinths and cymas".

Etymologocally, cyme (sun) n. flower cluster.

1725 cime sprout of a plant, such as cabbage; borrowed from French cime shoot or sprout of cabbage, and directly from Latin cyma a sprout, from Greek kyma young sprout, anything swollen, from kyein become pregnant.

Greek kyein is cognate with Sanskrit svayati swells up, Latin cavus hollow, from Indo-European.

Source: Robert K Barnhart, Editor, The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology New York: H W Wilson Co, 1988, page 247.

Queen Anne Style Personifies the Cyma Curve

The Queen Anne style emerged in Britain at the close of the seventeenth century. (Queen Anne -- the English monarch from Holland, i.e., the nation of the Dutch, but today called The Netherlands -- gave the "Queen Anne" style its name. She ascended the throne in 1702, and reigned until 1714.) The Queen Anne style is of Dutch inspiration, and as the historian of furniture history Joseph Aronson (pages 64-65) notes, "combines elements of comfort, grace, elegance". As the century progressed, in Britain the Queen Anne style evolved, and the cyma curve became strikingly more pronounced.

Aronson elaborates,

"Sleek and sophisticated, there is generally a unity of curved lines in Queen Anne furniture; a restraint of ornament and a better technical understanding of design. The cabriole leg is the outstanding detail, and its skillful association with other curves, as of seat outlines and back members of chairs, produces superb, distinctive designs. Improved technique made stretchers unnecessary after 1710, and pierced back splats became more decorative. Marquetry was subordinated to fine walnut surfaces. Carved motives were the scallop shell, broken and C-curves acanthus leaves."

Queen Anne style continued through the reign of George I and well into the reign of George II, so that late Queen Anne furniture often is called early Georgian. But says Aronson, -- The Encyclopedia of Furniture, New York: Crown, 1938, pages 64-65 -- "as the style progressed it had more and more curved lines. The cyma curve predominated".

Examples of Cyma Curves in Furniture Designs


Source Note: Charles Hayward is justifiably recognized as one of the most authoriative and prolific authors of woodworker's manuals in the last century. Like R J Decristoforo, this English-born writer started at a young age -- before he was thirty and -- as well as editing a woodworker's magazine in London -- between the 1920s and the 1980s, produced 36 books for woodworkers, three of which are dedicated to scaled drawings of English period furniture. Hayward directed considerable attention toward the significant Queen Anne-Chippendale era, an era that started ca 1700, and stretched almost to 1800, when other styles also began to flourish. Designs in both schools, especially Queen Anne, gave promience to the cyma curve. English Furniture at a Glance 1924 (not online); English Period Furniture 1948 (not online); and English Period Furniture Designs 1968 (not online); on the left are some Hayward drawings from English Period Furniture Designs , and for more info on Hayward's life and work, click here.


According to Marion Day Iverson, "Looking from the side" -- image on the left -- "the back of a Queen Anne chair is shaped like the handle of a spoon, supposedly to conform to the human back". In truth, claims the prominent historian of the chair in America, Iverson, "This spooned back actually is a cyma curve". The stiles of late Queen Anne chairs, Iverson continues, also had a cyma curve and the splats were in a variety of curved forms.

"The stile is the part of the back post above the seat. When it is turned, it is called a post, when not turned, a stile. Arms carried on the rhythm of line. The looped arm favored by the British is seen on the Powel chair. Philadelphia chairmakers often used the so-called Philadelphia arm; cyma curves are particularly noticeable in its arm support."

Marion Day Iverson, The American Chair, 1630-1890 1957, pages 86-88 See Sources

"The Line of Beauty": The Aesthetics of William Hogarth (1697-1764)

background on William Hogarth: Bio of William Hogarth;

The text below comes from Neil Kamil's massive study of William Hogarth:

The cyma curve consists flowing curves, not parts of a circle. What is known as Hogarth's "line of beauty " is, technically, the cyma curve.

Fortress of the Soul: Violence Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Huguenots' New World, 1517-1751 , Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Hugenot's New World, 1517-1751. Baltimore Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, page 580.


Contextualizing the aesthetics of natural philosophy and the formal logic of perpetual motion was precisely what Hogarth had in mind when he called the cyma-recta or S-curve the "line of beauty." (Cyma-recta is also known as the "ogee molding". needd better defin: A shape consisting of a concave arc flowing into a convex arc, so forming an S-shaped curve with vertical ends, the ogee curve is an analogue of a cyma curve, the difference being that a cyma has horizontal rather than vertical ends. An alternative name for ogee is cyma reversa.)

On the title page of The Analysis of Beauty, the subtitle of which is Written with a View of Fixing the Fluctuating Ideas of Taste (1753), Hogarth's critique of the "fluctuation" of modern tastes in fashion, are variations of his serpentine line.

He chose to focus on and illustrate a form widely understood among connoisseurs of French taste as an object of Huguenot artisanal manufacture: a curved chair leg (fig. 14.3, boxes 49, 50)." [17. William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty: Written With a View of Fixing the Fluctuating Ideas of Taste (London: Printed by J. Reeves for the Author: 1753), frontispiece.]

Hogarth was aware that knowledge of the curved leg in London was traceable at least to 1702, when the Huguenot architect and designer Daniel Marot (1661-1752) published his first collection of designs, containing 236 leaves of engraved plates.'[18. Daniel Marot, Oeuvres: Contenant plusiers penssez utile aux architectes, peintres, sculpteurs, orfevres et jardiniers, et autres; le toutes en faveure de ceux qui s'appliquerent aux beaux arts (The Hague: P. Husson, 1702). ]


The most distinctive feature of the Queen Anne style of chairs, however, is the cyma curve, which takes the place of the straight line in the previous styles. This curve is present in almost every part of the chair, and particularly and always in the cabriole form of leg. The cyma curve is illustrated in section 23 in which it is mentioned that the artist Hogarth termed this curve the "line of beauty"; and a "Hogarth chair" is shown as No. 9.

The splats in the chairs of the Queen Anne style are in a variety of forms, many of them graceful, even though simple and plain. The most usual form of splat has a supposed resemblance to the shape of a vase or a fiddleand a chair of this type is often called a "vase-back" or "fiddle-back" chair. In many Queen Anne style chairs of late date the splats were "pierced", as were most of the splats in the Chippendale style as seen in the next section.

Certain differences have been observed between the Queen Anne and Chippendale style of chairs made in Philadelphia and those made in New England. Most of these differences are details of cabinet making, not interesting to amateurs; one feature, however, may be mentioned here. Looking at the back of a good Philadelphia chair, of about 1750-178S, just above the tops of the rear legs, the ends of the side rails of the seat are often seen extending through the rear posts.? This method of construction was used in Philadelphia in the Queen Anne period and until the end of the Chippendale period. It has often been said that the method was not used in chairs made in other States; but this view has been found to be erroneous, as the same method has since been discovered in chairs made in New York and Connecticut. This illustrates the danger of asserting a negative?

The wood of which the New England chairs and other articles in the Queen Anne style were made was generally walnut or other native woods. Walnut was also used in the Pennsylvania chairs until mahogany became the fashion, which was about 174-5; after that date mahogany was almost exclusively used in that State in the finer class of chairs. It was recently said that of all the numerous chairs in the Queen Anne style in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art only five are of mahogany and they were of about 1750.

Source: Edgar G. Miller, American Antique Furniture: A Book for Amateurs New York: Dover, orig date 1937 -- selections, more to read here about cyma and cabriole as featured in Queen Anne and Chippendale in 18th century furniture making

Cabriole and Cyma Entwined


Source: William R Johston, "Anatomy of the Chair in Eighteenth Century Styles", Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 21, no 3 November, 1962, page 119.

Daniel Marot is said to have originated the Queen Anne style: -- See account here. Marot entered William III's service in London as a refugee of 1685. However, cabriole as a term was in use Yet the shows that the word cabriole was first used in English as early as the sixteenth century, but in reference to furniture. Oxford English Dictionary

Instead, cabriole signified the spirited caper of a leaping goat or horse.

Thomas Fitch, a Boston upholsterer of leather chairs, called such a leg a "horse bone" or "Crookt Foot" in his account book, a lexical pattern that soon became common in appraisals of chairs with these legs. Such legs were identified as ubiquitous on artifacts of politeness in probate inventories taken in affluent colonial households.19 Why serpentine chair components were idealized in British-American transatlantic culture, and hence consid­ered analogous to a part of natural bodies essential to the "caper" of politeness, is also essential to the natural philosophy of Noon.20 [20. For an analysis of the analogy between parts of the human anatomy and furniture com­ponents in colonial America, see Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, "Furniture as Social History: Gender, Property, and Memory in the Decorative Arts," American Furniture, 1995, ed. Luke Beckerdite and William N. Hosley (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1995): 42-52.]

Hogarth was unambiguous on this point. If a "grand secret of the ancients, or great key of knowledge" existed, he had found it in the serpentine line which connected "an infinite variety of parts." Like Palissy, Hogarth looked to Nature for the source of this foundational line, and, like Palissy, he found it in the inner and outer bodies of the shell, where his eye went, "in the pursuit of these serpentine-lines, as in their twist­ings their concavities and convexities are alternately offer'd to its view":

[L]et every object . . . be imagined . . . to have nothing of it left but a thin shell, exactly corresponding both in its inner and outer surface, to the shape of the object itself .. whether the eye is supposed to observe them from without, or within; . . . we shall find the ideas of the two surfaces of this shell will naturally coincide. The very word, shell, makes us seem to see both surfaces alike.

... the [more often] we think of objects in this shell-like manner, we shall facilitate ... a more perfect knowledge of the whole ... because the imagination will naturally en-ter into this vacant space within this shell . . . and make us masters of the meaning of every view of the object. 21 [ 21. Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty, ed. Burke, 14, 70, 27.]

With the important exception of the outsized earthenware pitcher cloaked in shadow on a pedestal in the deep background, no other "moveable" figure down on street level in "Noon" shows the line of beauty seen on the Huguenot sign. Indeed, Hogarth's polite threesome can only manage to convey a sort of angular - even geometrical - stiffness. Rather than repeating the requisite series of mobile serpentine lines like the ones floating effortlessly above their heads, at first glance the sun figures present instead an image of arrested action. Here, light and spirit are forced through a maze of straight lines that bend into triangles and converge at the head, arms, legs, and feet. Here, too, Hogarth's agenda is inferred from The Analysis of Beauty. Elucidating the aesthetic relation between philosophical language and animate form, Hogarth reinvented seventeenth-century artisanal and scientific images, "with a view of fixing the fluctuating ideas of taste."

In a second engraving of the line of beauty published on the title page (fig. 14.4), Hogarth contains the fluctuating line of taste in solid geometric form. This thought experiment in the aesthetics of matter in motion (or put another way, motion hidden inside of matter) focuses the line vertically and in two directions at once. Here an animate spirit undulates between macrocosm and microcosm in perpetuity inside a trans-parent crystal pyramid; that is, inside of four transparent triangles connected with a common point at the apex, which Hogarth explains suggests the alchemical symbols connoting fire and air.

Just as Hogarth appropriated the line of beauty for the chairs in figure 14.3 (boxes 49, 5o) from Marot's designs for William III's chairs, so, too, he gathered the conceptual framework for this system of triangles from a cryptogram on the title page of Fludd's De technica microcosmi historia, or History of the Microcosmic Arts (Oppenheim, 1619), an elaboration on Renaissance drawing in deep perspective. Fludd identified this formal representation as his most influential natural-philosophical conception, the "science of pyramids" (pyramidum scientia) (fig. m.6).

Hogarth used it as a fragmentary source for the backward sign. When Fludd's multiple volumes of cosmology were engraved and published by the refugee de Bry in Oppenheim and Frankfurt between 1617 and 1631, they were contextualized as major contributions to the Huguenot corpus that, as Frances Yates and Frank Lestringant show, emerged specifically from apocalyptic conditions created by the Thirty Years' War.

The Fluddian images from Microcosmi historia explored the metaphysics of movement in the context of flight from religious warfare. Both were necessary for the construction of the crystal pyramid in The Analysis ofBeauty, and the system of materialism configured in the form of the backward sign of the Huguenot church in Noon.

As we have learned from the introduction to his chapter "Of Intricacy" in The Analysis of Beauty, Hogarth also followed an older tradition of representation in showing the linear movement of numerous bodies through geographical space. Serpentine lines had been used cross-culturally to document passage over distances by important court or religious processions ever since the Middle Ages, when the courtly progress was a common event. But it became a conventional artistic schema of dispersion in early modern times, when it underwent a process of elaboration. In 1661, a similar serpen­tine composition was elaborated in a Dutch engraving of La Rochelle that reimagines the largest outmigration of refugees from the city after 1628 as a frantic flight by dias­poric Huguenots carrying the tools of their trades and material belongings with them (fig. 14.5).

The Colonial Cyma Curve Design Spans Four Centuries


"It was in the graceful application of curved scrolls and exquisitely turned shapes that the early American craftsmen excelled". Masters of the cyma curve -- with the Bowsaw -- colonial craftsmen employed it widely.


A molding with double curvature is called a Cyma, or Wave Molding. If the tangents to the curve at top and bottom are horizontal, as if the profile were cut from a horizontal wavy line, it is called a Cyma Recta, Fig. 26; if vertical, as if cut from a vertical line, a Cyma Reversa, Fig. 27. The Cyma Recta is sometimes called Cyma Reversa, Fig. 26 (c), when it is turned upside down. But this leads to confusion. The Cymas vary also, Fig. 28, in the shape and relative size of their concave and convex elements. A small Cyma is called a Cymatium. A small molding placed above a Band, or any larger molding, as a decoration, is also called a Cymatium, Fig. 29, whatever its shape.

Source: William R Ware, The American Vignola: The Five Orders

Cyma Curves on Broken Pediment on Chippendale Highboy


bonnet top, the covered tops or pediments found on Queen Anne or Chippendale highboys, in which the swanlike necks of the cyma curves ended with a carved scroll, in some cases. See Fig. 16, Plate 63; Fig. 37, Plate 24. source: gottshall

Colonial craftsmen applied it to form reverse, reciprocal, foreshortened, elongated, and continuous undulating scrolls


The Cyma's graceful sweep can take numerous shapes in both of a piece's horizontal or vertical sections.


As shown in the hutch designed and built by David F. Butler in 1970, left, the cyma curve gives a warm feeling to the scrollwork along the tops and sides of cabinets, on the sides of hanging shelves and along the aprons and other parts of tables, chests and stools. In a definite sense, these curved sections -- together with distinctive shapes of turned parts -- tend to unify and create a kindredness to colonial furniture.

Sources: Allan Marquand, "On the Terms Cyma Recta and Cyma Reversa", American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 10, No. 3 July-September 1906, page 287;

Edgar G. Miller, American Antique Furniture: A Book for Amateurs New York: Dover, orig date 1937;

Joseph Aronson, The Encyclopedia of Furniture, New York: Crown, 1938;

Walt Durbahn, Fundamentals of Carpentry Chicago: American Technical Society, 1947, volume 1, page 26;

Marion Day Iverson, The American Chair, 1630-1890 New York: Hastings House Publishers, 1957;

John Gerald Shea, Colonial Furniture, New York: Van Nostrand, 1964, page 5;

David F. Butler, Simplified Furniture Design and Construction: A Handbook for the Amateur Builder New York: A S Barnes, 1970, chapter 9 and dustcover;

Norman Vandal, Queen Anne Furniture: History, Design and Construction Newtown, CT: Taunton Press, 1990, chapter 1 -- but Vandal's book is not online, unfortunately;

Neil Kamil, Fortress of the Soul: Violence , Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Hugenot's New World, 1517-1751. Baltimore Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.